Trio of high draft picks revives Patriots defense
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP)
He wanted to gain the respect of the veterans.
Now, defensive end Rob Ninkovich said, ''they have to do it again. That's the key.''
Ninkovich was part of a defense that gave up 411.1 yards per game last season, second most in the NFL. Bad turned to worse when the Patriots lost their two leading pass rushers - Andre Carter, who wasn't re-signed, and Mark Anderson, who signed with Buffalo - after they combined for 20 sacks.
On Sunday, the 6-foot-5 Jones notched his first sack as a pro - and what a sack it was for the No. 21 pick from Syracuse with the height and long arms that help him swim by offensive linemen.
The defensive end got around left tackle Michael Roos with a swim move and knocked the ball free. Hightower, drafted four spots later, scooped it up and ran 6 yards for a touchdown as the Patriots took a 14-3 lead.
''I didn't even know it was a strip sack,'' Jones said. ''I thought it was just a normal sack. I got up and Dont'a was in the end zone, jumping up and down. So that was good.''
Titans coach Mike Munchak was impressed with Jones.
''Good football player,'' he said, ''and (he) made a good play on us.''
Jones cares more about impressing his teammates. He spent three outstanding college seasons disrupting offenses, but he hadn't done anything yet in the pros.
''My expectation was to get respect from these vets. You've got Vince Wilfork over here to my right,'' he said, nodding at the 330-pound defensive tackle dressing in a nearby locker. ''Just earn his respect. For him to be out there and to trust in me that I'm going to do my job is just my goal.''
The best way to gain that respect? By ''making plays, not have any mental errors and just going out there and just being a professional,'' Jones said.
Hightower also had plenty of college experience, at Alabama - three seasons plus a redshirt year in which he played four games. Playing in a system under coach Nick Saban, coach Bill Belichick's buddy, was a good prep course to play outside linebacker in the NFL.
''Dont'a has a lot of responsibility at his position, relative to formations and adjustments, pass coverage, run responsibilities and all that,'' Belichick said. ''He did a lot of those things at Alabama and played a couple different spots at Alabama in their defense, which has some similarities to what we do. I think he was very well-coached and -schooled when he got here. He's a smart guy. He's picking things up pretty well.''
Wilson also was an experienced standout at a big-time school. In four years at Illinois, he played in 49 games, starting all 38 in his last three seasons, splitting time between safety and cornerback. In New England, he's a backup safety at a position that has improved so much this year that the Patriots released James Ihedigbo, who started 12 games there last season.
At 210 pounds, his size allows him to take on bigger blockers. At times, Belichick has used him closer to the line than safeties usually play.
''He's got good size. He's a physical player. He runs well, I think he'll mix it up in the running game and can blitz,'' Belichick said. ''It's kind of a new position for him, but he's picked it up OK.''
Against the Titans, Wilson notched an interception in the end zone on a deep pass that deflected off the helmet of teammate Kyle Arrington. He had to hustle to make the catch.
''I just kept running. That's all,'' he said. ''If you run to the ball, great things will happen for you.''
But he didn't need a big play in his first game to boost his confidence.
''I try to go out there and play with a lot of confidence regardless,'' Wilson said.
All three rookies bring exceptional size, skill and maturity. Jones and Hightower started on Sunday and figure to be valuable players for years. Wilson is contributing as a backup. But all received plenty of repetitions in training camp.
''A lot of our young players have had an opportunity to do that,'' Belichick said. ''They've been on the field. They've practiced. They've made mistakes. They've gone back out and done them right the next time and been able to move on to something else. That's been a positive. Those two guys (Jones and Hightower), they've done a good job.''
Good enough to impress their teammates? Has Jones earned the respect of Wilfork, a four-time Pro Bowl selection?
''I feel like I have,'' he said with a smile, ''a little bit.''
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